The year 2020 was not what any of us expected. As we clinked our champagne glasses at midnight, none of us anticipated lockdowns, a global virus or the shutting down of worldwide supply chains. When we refer back to 2020, we can focus on the chaos and unpredictability, or we can reach for the silver linings.
The digital economy exploded. Teachers adapted to online learning models. And businesses and entrepreneurs invested in flexibility and found new and exciting pathways to growth. One option growing in popularity as a result of the pandemic is additive manufacturing (AM). Wohlers Associates reports industry expansion of 7.5% to nearly $12.8 billion last year alone.
There is a common misconception that 3D printing or AM is limited to low-series, prototype capacity. We picture a guy in his garage 3D printing car replacement parts as a hobby. Today, however, AM offers a high response time for manufacturing production applications and can empower companies to quickly adapt. It can be an appealing alternative as traditional manufacturing supply chains are repeatedly disrupted and overexerted.
As the president of an AM company, I have seen firsthand how AM has created an alternative method for faster go-to-market manufacturing and is breaking down some of the barriers in product development. If your business is considering AM as a resource, here are some tips and insights to make the strategy successful.
The Benefits Of Additive Manufacturing
1. Lower Costs with On-Demand Printing: Additive manufacturing has historically been leveraged as a prototyping tool for designers and engineers to test concept design and product verification. Improvements in materials, printing and sintering processes mean AM can now also fill the gap for on-demand printing or production.
2. Quicker Go-To-Market: Thanks to the advancements of AM and associated materials, creating an agile manufacturing plan and producing a product now fits into a substantially shorter timeline. For example, my company was able to produce thousands of nasopharyngeal swabs at scale for healthcare use during the pandemic. Rather than being subjected to the drawn-out timelines of traditional manufacturing and already stretched-thin supply chains, we got to mass production in eight weeks.
3. Localized Manufacturing to Scale: AM allows for local manufacturing in close proximity to a business or a need. For instance, the NP swabs we mentioned were not subject to the costs of overseas shipping and reliance upon an antiquated manufacturing chain.
4. Ability to Test and Try Prototypes: Businesses often attempt to produce and test prototypes before going into full production but are stymied by the costs and lack of access to high-quality design and engineering resources. It is a frustrating conundrum. You want to make sure the product will resonate with your audience but cannot necessarily afford to do proper due diligence. With AM, the price and timeline barriers can now come down.
When To Skip The Additive Manufacturing Option
Despite the significant potential of additive manufacturing, not everyone will fully benefit from this technology.
Manufacturers with sustainability goals may choose to avoid certain polymers commonly used in AM. The landscape for new materials is changing rapidly, but some of these polymers still suffer from potential quality loss when recycled. Products requiring additional surface finishes may also see additional processing time, which could negate some of the time saved with AM. Clients must be capable of factoring AM capabilities — which are not the same as traditional manufacturing — into the overall product development process.
Knowledge is power, and understanding the key differences explained in this article can ensure better outcomes for all.
Top Factors For AM Partnership
1. Find an AM partner with experience in your particular industry. Some AM companies are niche; they focus on medical modeling, or automotive or aerospace. Are they typically B2B or B2C? An additive manufacturer with a background in your field will better understand the tech and materials required to create high-quality products. Do some research before reaching out.
2. Identify your design and engineering needs and resources. About 98% of our customers come through the door with computer-aided design (CAD) files in hand. But plenty of additive manufacturers have their own design and engineering teams in-house and can make them available to you. Do not feel like you need a fully baked-in concept to start the conversation. Complexity is free!
3. Look for certifications and standards. Not all AM companies are made equal. I recommend seeking out a partner qualified to take on your work with health and safety standards that are well-established. Some recommendations to look for include:
• ISO 9000 family of quality management standards.
• National Institute of Standards and Technology IT Security Validation Program.
• International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
These go beyond the standard training and certifications any professional additive manufacturer must have under their belt and can vary based on industry focus. I would also recommend asking to see the details of the AM’s quality management system and how it is upheld.
AM technologies can shape the world of tomorrow. Businesses in the product development space do not have to be hampered by some of traditional manufacturing’s limitations; there are others options to consider to get your design and engineering wheels turning on full speed.